So, as y’all know, I’ve been thinking about penal substitutionary atonement lately. While I do think that it’s very hard for the doctrine to not open itself up to some of the most popular criticisms, e.g. it turns God into a cosmic child abuser, etc., the main focus of my critique, the one which I think is not only fatal, but most important, is the doctrine of sin and evil as having absolutely no existence, but as rather being the lack of some good, just as darkness is merely the absence of light.
This doctrine is universally (as far as I know) propounded by the Fathers, East and West (Origen, Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius…) as well as the Scholastics (Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eckhart), and so I won’t take the time here to even argue for the doctrine, but rather argue why I think it’s essential to recover it these days (beyond the fact that it’s true, which is, of course, more than reason enough).
Response to post-modernity
The contemporary world has a very hard time talking about sin. The word has become radioactive, or else meaningless, as Francis Spufford found out. If you’ll let me indulge in a moment of outrageous caricature, we have the choice between traditionalists warning of a wrathful, vindictive and legalistic God, and progressives who want to bury sin under a avalanche of glucose and cheap grace. By contrast, in many of the Patristic accounts, the classical doctrine of sin is usually tied with what I find to be a very helpful (and very Biblical) image of Christ as the Divine Healer. Sin, as the lack of the good in us, is a disease of which Christ heals us, by the Spirit, by filling our lacks with grace.
I find this to be a potentially winsome spiritual, pastoral, and apologetic approach. No, God is not sitting there in heaven, frowning, arms crossed and foot tapping, just waiting for you to slip up so he can throw you into Gehenna. At the same time, if you find out you have some dreadful disease, not going to the doctor and just living your life the way you used to is probably not a good idea. Yes, it’s possible for this approach to go overboard if, by overemphasizing the “disease” aspect of the metaphor it ends up robbing people of their agency and/or being overly patronizing. But abusus non tollit usus. Because guess what, yes, if you spend your life practicing lust or greed or covetousness, you will destroy your soul, and not (certainly not primarily) because God is a retributive judge, but because doing those things literally is destroying your soul.
Theodicy and Spiritual Growth
Especially for Augustine, this doctrine of sin is a key element of his theodicy, as it is, more recently, for David Bentley Hart. As you know, theodicy is not a topic I like to dwell on, but I will note that thanks to the New Atheist phenomenon I got to watch countless YouTube videos of Christian apologists being asked about the problem of evil, and I recall absolutely zero of them making an argument along this venerable line.
But the reason I don’t like to dwell on theodicy is also the reason why I think this doctrine is so important, which is that it helps us develop what I will call contempt for sin, which I think ought to be the basic attitude of the Christian.
By this phrase “contempt for sin” I mean something specific. Military citations for valor typically include well-known ritual phrases, such as, in the American tradition, “above and beyond the call of duty.” In French military citations, such as the ones of my ancestors gracing the walls of my family home, one such phrase is “he acted with contempt for danger.” An image I would like to conjure is that of a fireman running into a burning building. The fireman is not just advancing prudently through the fire, which, let’s face it, would already be very courageous. Instead, he runs into the fire. He acts with utter contempt for danger. Yet it is not insanity, or even recklessness.
Sin is nothing at all. Furthermore, the Sovereign Lord of the Universe, in the New Passover, has smashed the powers and principalities and triumphed over them, and in his grace and love has appointed us as kings, priests and prophets. Soon, soon, every tear will be wiped from every eye, every knee will bend, and every mouth will proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and God will be all in all. The faithful, firm, bone-deep knowledge of this reality must be the bedrock of any Christian response to suffering and evil and sin and death, and it is what enables us, in participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to turn evil into good.
The theodicy of the privatio boni is not a neat philosophical trick that allows us to have our cake and eat it, rather, I think, it is the product of spiritual growth, of the true conversion of the heart, by the Spirit, that sees beyond the passing things to the uncreated light that dwells at the heart of all things, that has become so utterly filled with the infinite love that always breaks out, and always destroys evil, but almost as an afterthought of its sheer intensity and power.
Creation, Fall, Redemption
This doctrine is also a key component of the overall drama of Scripture, and salvation history: Creation (of a good Universe), Fall, Redemption (of the Universe, and not just individuals within it). John 1, as is universally acknowledged, is a retelling of the Genesis story. But, among the countless riches of this chapter, is a point that I do not see remarked-upon enough: in John’s telling, it is not God who kicked Adam out of the garden; it is man who kicks God out (“And his own received him not”).
The story of the Fall is that of man putting up a wall, a dam, between Creation and God’s grace that sustains it into existence (existence, which is, after all, only participation in the Being of God, who is the absolute, unconditioned Good)–thereby necessarily creating, well, a lack of the good (we’re still in theodicy, as you can see). Because of God’s literally unimaginable generosity, his grace still overflows enough to sustain the Universe into some semblance of coherence. But most importantly, Christ’s work, succeeding where Adam failed, burst a huge hole in the dam and, equally importantly, enabled us to keep chipping at it until it is finally, completely torn down.
Piety and Social Activism
Another important (and extremely sad and frustrating) divide within Christianity is the divide between what I’ll call “piety” and “social activism”, a focus on personal sin vs. a focus on social sins. It seems to me that the understanding of sin as a lack of the good brings the two together. Because we can see the lack of the good inside us as well as outside us, in society–and with enough introspection, by the light of the Spirit, we can see the link between the two. And the drama of Creation, Fall and Redemption enables us to see that the link is existential: Adam was meant to be viceroy of the Universe, and so his failure wrecked not only himself, but the world, and we are meant to be the Return of the King, to be God’s holy instruments in setting things right. The lack of the good is inside as well as outside–they’re the same thing. And Creation, Fall and Redemption means that we cannot retreat to private piety and simply build an escape hatch for ourselves to Heaven; Creation, Fall and Redemption also means that social activism, without having our hearts of stone cut out and replaced with hearts of flesh, will always be empty; Creation, Fall and Redemption, and the classical doctrine of sin and the power of the Spirit, mean that we can have the contempt for evil of the great King riding into battle from the front, whether we confront the demons that lurk in our heart or that grip God’s good Earth.
I think once our doctrine of sin is thus, so to speak, reset to factory settings, all sorts of pieces start falling together in a much more harmonious and fruitful way.